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Still a voice of reason

SHE WAS born on Feb. 2, 1905, in Russia. At the age of 9 she decided she wanted to be a writer. As a teenager she lived through the horrors of the communist revolution, and at age 21 she made her way to the United States. She learned English and became a best-selling author; her books still sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year and in 1991, nearly a decade after her death, a Library of Congress survey found that her magnum opus, ''Atlas Shrugged," was the most influential book in the country after the Bible.

A century after her birth, Rand's legacy lives on not only in her novels -- ''The Fountainhead" (1943), ''Anthem" (1938), ''We the Living" (1936), and ''Atlas Shrugged" (1957) -- but also in political and cultural ideas that are changing the country.

Rand is best known as a logical yet passionate advocate of individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism who stands out from others because she was principally a novelist. In ''Atlas Shrugged," her heroes were businessmen and women, productive individuals whose achievements were responsible for the country's prosperity. This is in stark contrast to the usual portrayal of business executives as villains in books, movies, TV shows, sermons and political pronouncements. Rand didn't simply explain her perspective; her stories showed us her characters' love for their work; it was exciting to read about how they strove with zeal, using their minds, independent judgment, integrity, and strength to produce railroads, oil wells, and steel mills.

Rand's plots taught economic lessons better than do most college textbooks, showing exactly how one government regulation after another can punish productive individuals and destroy a country. Even more important, in her novels and her nonfiction works she developed a philosophy -- Objectivism -- that provided a moral defense of free markets.

Rand began with the observation that since the ultimate alternative for human beings is life or death, the ultimate moral goal for each individual is survival. That might not seem so radical, but Rand went on to observe that because we are humans, the goal is not just physical survival; it is a happy, joyous, and flourishing life. Further, the means by which we discover how to achieve this goal is our unique rational capacity, not instincts, feelings or faith. Thinking allows us to produce food, clothing, shelter, medicine, printing presses, computers, rockets, and theories to explain everything from atoms to galaxies.

Rand developed an ethos of rational self-interest, but this ''virtue of selfishness" was not an antisocial creed for predators. Instead, it led Rand to her great insight that there is no conflict of interest between honest, rational individuals.

Since individuals are ends in themselves, no one in society should initiate the use of force or fraud against others. All relationships should be based on mutual consent. This became the credo of the modern libertarian movement, found today in think tanks, publications, and public policy proposals.

True individualists would not debase themselves by living the life of a thief, whether robbing a store with a gun or their fellow citizens with a government mandate or wealth-redistribution scheme. Rather, they would take pride in taking responsibility for their own lives, actions and moral character. Rand wrote, ''As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul."

Thus an ethos of rational self-interest justifies and supports individual liberty; a free market -- not a communist, socialist, fascist, or welfare-state system -- is the only one that protects the rights of each individual. Entrepreneurs, workers, professionals, and all others need not justify their quest for the highest wages or profits or to seek permission from ''society" or their neighbors; they are free to live their lives as they please as long as they respect the similar freedom of others.

The result of such self-interest is a peaceful, prosperous society of achievers. Such a society would be a joy to live. Not only would we each benefit materially from the goods and services we purchase from others, we would obtain spiritual fuel from their inspiring examples. As one of Rand's characters states, ''Don't work for my happiness, my brothers -- show me yours . . . show me your achievement -- and the knowledge will give me courage for mind."

Among Rand's admirers today are Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who was her close friend, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, members of Congress, governors, entrepreneurs, scholars, and many proud individuals, in the United States and around the world.

At the centenary of her birth, Rand's voice of reason offers an antidote for our polarized and overly politicized country and our world threatened by irrational fanaticism and force; it promises a future in which all individuals can realize the best within them.

Edward Hudgins is the executive director of the Objectivist Center. 

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